Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Claire Waverley, like her grandmother, has an extraordinary gift that appears in the herbs and flowers from her garden that she couples into her catering. She can sway people’s emotions with her mint and rose petal jellies or violet petal cakes, or even cause them to temporarily see in the dark, with her secret recipe for honeysuckle wine. Because of her talents Claire is accustomed to being a loner, until her long-estranged sister Sydney returns to their small North Carolina town with a young daughter named Bay. Sydney is escaping an abusive ex-boyfriend with a new name and a determination to protect her child, even from her own past, including the richest man in town, to whom she was nearly engaged before mysteriously vanishing after high school. Evanelle, the sisters’ eccentric aunt and only living relative, has a gift too: compulsively gifting bizarre objects that later prove to be appropriate, including one that forces Claire to finally meet the attractive male art professor who just moved in next door. Garden Spells is a perfect beach-day book that will make you crave the smells and flavors of summertime, and reveals what it means to be part of a family, no matter how eccentric.

Similar Book Recommendations:

The sequel to this book is called First Frost, and it takes place over a decade later. It is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed this book. The author has a few other books available that have entirely different characters and settings, including The Sugar Queen, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and The Peach Keeper.

Sometimes people were expected to behave within certain parameters, because of who their families were. In Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, some of this same expectation greatly affects the primary (and some secondary characters).

Another interesting book about a young woman struggling with her family’s past and trying to find her own identity is The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.

For another tale of a magic family and searching for identity, read Alphabet of Thorn by fantasy award-winner Patricia McKillip.

Themed Recipe:

Bay numerous times mentions her love of strawberry pop-tarts, and Evanelle wisely gave some to Claire before her sister’s and niece’s arrival. Since the Waverly women never eat the apples from their tree, strawberry pop-tarts are the next most frequently mentioned food in the book. And who doesn’t like reliving a bit of their childhood in the form of a cupcake?

Strawberry Pop-tart Cupcakes

Strawberry Pop-Tart Cupcakes:


Vanilla Cake Batter:

2 ¼ cups all purpose flour

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

3 ½ tsp baking powder

3 eggs

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 cup milk, I used 2 %

1 stick butter, softened

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

24 tsps strawberry jam, 1 tsp per cupcake


1 Tablespoon water

½ cup powdered sugar

Strawberry Jam Buttercream:

1 stick butter, softened

1 teaspoons vanilla extract

7 tsps strawberry jam

4 cups powdered sugar

3 TBSP milk


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line pans with cupcake liners. Spray the liners with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Sift dry ingredients of flour, granulated sugar, and baking powder into a small bowl and set aside.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk one stick of butter and vanilla extract together on low, then add eggs, oil, and 1 cup of milk.
  4. Add dry mix and combine until fully incorporated.
  5. Fill cupcake liners 1/2 full, then add 1 tsp strawberry jam. Top with more batter until muffin tin is 2/3 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until an inserted knife comes out clean of raw batter, with only crumbs and maybe a little jam.
  6. Glaze: Combine the water with the ½ cup of powdered sugar, using a fork to whisk until smooth. Use more powdered sugar to make thicker or more water to make thinner, if necessary.
  7. Dip the top of cooled cupcakes (allow 5-10 minutes to cool) into glaze and let set.
  8. Buttercream: Beat one stick of butter for 2 minutes on medium speed in a stand mixer. Add 1 tsp vanilla extract and 7 tsps strawberry jam. Slowly add powdered sugar in one-cup increments. After two cups of sugar have been incorporated, add the 3 tbsps of milk. Resume on medium speed about, adding one cup at a time of powdered sugar until you reach a thick frosting consistency.
  9. Pipe buttercream over glaze (once firm-you may need to refrigerate after mixing for about 10 minutes). Top iced cupcakes with a piece of Pop Tart.
  10. Pulse some colored sprinkles in a food processor and sprinkle over icing and frosting to look like a poptart, or leave them whole for a little crunch.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Throughout the book, Evanelle is constantly giving out items she knows people will need, regardless of whether or not they will actually use them at the right time. How could this be frustrating for her? Which gifts did she give that you can remember were used, and how important were they?
  2. Sydney knows hair very well, and is able to interpret unspoken things about people based on their hair. What were some of her observations? What do you Sydney would say your hair says about you? Is it true that when a woman changes her hair, it signals a change somewhere in her life as well?
  3. At first, Sydney wasn’t going to tell Claire about her past because, “it wasn’t something you shared with just anyone, not even your own sister, if you didn’t think she’d understand.” What made her think her sister wouldn’t understand? Did she? Was Claire sympathetic? Why is understanding sometimes more important than sympathy, and can sympathy be enough if someone doesn’t understand? If not, is this sometimes why people like Sydney put up so many walls around themselves?
  4. “David had money, but he’d never been a gift-giver, never big on rewards, remorse, or apologies.” Should this have been a sign to Sydney that something was deeply wrong with David, and should have caused her to leave sooner? Or was it possible she hadn’t noticed til it was too late? Why are some abusers lavish with gifts and apologies after being abusive, and others, like David, aren’t?
  5. Ariel warned her daughter Emma that “first loves are powerful loves.” To what extent was this true for Hunter John and Sydney? Is it true in real life as well, or only as much as we allow it? what makes first loves more impactful than others? How was Hunter John able to overcome his first love?
  6. Not just the Waverly women have “gifts.” Emma calls her “skill” one as well, but what are the differences between what she is capable of, and Sydney or Claire’s gifts? Do all of them work all the time? Are there differences between a gift and a skill?
  7. Emma lives in a mansion with her husband and two sons, could this be part of the reason why she decorated so heavily with the color pink, or might there be another reason? What color scheme would you use if you owned a home like hers?
  8. Surprises were nothing new to Evanelle, “like opening a can of mushroom soup and finding tomato instead; be grateful and eat it anyway.” What makes her have this mentality, when so many others, especially her age, struggle with accepting change and surprises in life?
  9. Henry Hopkins, like all Hopkins men, was “born old and would spend his whole life waiting for his body to catch up. This was the reason [they] married older women.” What is the connection between these two things? Do you know any men like that, and did they marry older women? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of being this way?
  10. Henry describes a young, teenaged Sydney as looking “like autumn, when leaves turned and fruit ripened.” What made him associate her with those things? If Sydney is fall, what season is Claire, Henry, or Evanelle, based on their personalities? What season would you be and why?
  11. Evanelle believes that “there was a type of craziness caused by long-term complacency.” Sometimes men begin construction on their homes, or wives color their hair just to get their husbands to look at them differently. What other examples of this were mentioned in the book? Have you ever done anything as an escape from boredom or the same old thing?
  12. Claire and Henry “were the kids who embraced our legacies young.” How did this affect who they were as adults, as well as their careers? How did not accepting it change and create Sydney into who she was? Is there something to be said for embracing certain aspects of our legacies? What happens to those who don’t know them-does a piece always feel as if it’s missing?
  13. Life is about experience and changes, but Claire is still trying to hold on to the past. Why is that? Is Sydney doing the same thing, in a different way? Why or why not?
  14. Sydney had been waiting, not only to be comfortable enough with her sister to share her past, but also for night, “because it was the sort of thing that needed darkness to tell.” Why? Was part of it because she felt guilty, and if so, should she have? Are there other things that ought to be told at night as well?
  15. Tyler doesn’t want to forget anything that has happened between him and Claire after she goes to visit him. He tells her “I remember everything about you. I can’t help it.” What makes him that way, when so many others spent so long (all of high school) avoiding her? How is it that he can be so attracted to her uniqueness, instead of afraid of it? What is it about his statement that is so appealing to her, and to most women?
  16. Claire said that she needed someone to absorb what she had too much of. How was Tyler able to withstand her literal physical heat? Was this another of her unique gifts, or might it be something the Waverley women share? Why?
  17. Evanelle wondered if it was different for people when the one they loved died, as opposed to the one they loved simply leaving. What do you think? Is one easier to accept than the other? Why or why not?
  18. When David ate an apple and saw the biggest event in his life, it was his death, and the thing he feared most, and possibly the only thing he feared. Why would this make him such a bully to Sydney? What kind of death do you think he feared, since it wasn’t expressly revealed? Why do some people, especially unkind people like David, fear death so much-is it the act of dying and the pain of it, or the unknown afterlife they fear?
  19. Bay feels sympathy for her father because “he had never belonged anywhere.” She, very maturely, observed that “it was hard not to feel sorry for a life that had no purpose of its own.” Why is it that some lives, like his, have no purpose-do they make themselves that way through bad choices? Why is Bay able to have sympathy for him, when no one else seems to?
  20. Bay was so happy and peaceful to finally discover the source of the lights and to live the memory of perfect peace she’d had a vision of. In that moment, she realized everything was going to be perfect. Why did she feel that way-was it more than just because of the vision? Was there something else that put her mind at rest? Have you ever had a moment like that? What moments or places in people’s lives can make us feel that way-and is it a different thing dependent on each person’s preferences?

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